Cover image for Starving for salvation : the spiritual dimensions of eating problems among American girls and women
Starving for salvation : the spiritual dimensions of eating problems among American girls and women
Lelwica, Michelle Mary.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
x, 210 pages ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1510 Lexile.
Format :


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RC552.E18 L44 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In recent years, eating disorders among American girls and women have become a subject of national concern. Conventional explanations of eating problems are usually framed in the language of psychology, medicine, feminism, or sociology. Although they differ in theory and approach, theseinterpretations are linked by one common assumption--that female preoccupation with food and body is an essentially secular phenomenon. In Starving for Salvation, Michelle Lelwica challenges traditional theories by introducing and exploring the spiritual dimensions of anorexia, bulimia, and related problems. Drawing on a range of sources that include previously published interviews with sufferers of eating disorders, Lelwica claimsthat girls and women starve, binge, and purge their bodies as a means of coping with the pain and injustice of their daily lives. She provides an incisive analysis of contemporary American culture, arguing that our dominant social values and religious legacies produce feelings of emptiness anddissatisfaction in girls and women. Trapped in a society that ignores and denies their spiritual needs, girls and women construct a network of symbols, beliefs, and rituals around food and their bodies. Lelwica draws a parallel between the patriarchal legacy of Christianity, which associates women with sin and bodily cravings, andthe cultural preference for a thin female body. According to Lelwica, these complimentary forces form a popular salvation myth that encourages girls and women to fixate on their bodies and engage in disordered eating patterns. While this myth provides a sense of meaning and purpose in the face ofuncertainty and injustice, Lelwica demonstrates that such rigid and unhealthy devotion to the body only deepens the spiritual void that women long to fill. Although Lelwica presents many disturbing facts about the origins of eating disorders, she also suggests positive ways that our society can nourish the creative and spiritual needs of girls and women. The first step, however, is to acknowledge that female preoccupation with thinness and foodsignifies a strong desire for fulfillment. Until we recognize and contest the religious legacies and cultural values that perpetuate eating disorders, many women will continue to turn to the most accessible symbolic and ritual resources available to them--food and their bodies--in an attempt tosatiate their profound spiritual hunger.

Author Notes

Michelle M. Lelwica grew up in rural Minnesota and earned her Doctorate of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. She is currently Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Mary's College of California.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

What do dieting, eating disorders, and obsession with thinness have to do with religion? According to Lelwica, more than one might think. The author has provided a probing and intelligent explanation of dieting and weight obsession that points to religiosity, morality, and absolution from guilt as the primary agents motivating women's irrational quest for thinness. Readers know that whittled female bodies are admired as the epitome of feminine beauty--but what motivates this extreme behavior aside from a desire for social acceptance? Lelwica argues that the answer lies in the spiritual hunger of the dieter and the illusion sold by advertisements that a sense of "salvation"--deliverance from difficulty or pain--comes with an ideal body. Thinness equates to being born again: women are taught that becoming thin will transform and purify; eating excessively and gaining weight are associated with feelings of shame, guilt, and immorality. Denying bodily pleasures, including the pleasure of eating, is often associated with spirituality and purity, and fasting has been ritualized by many religions throughout human history. Eating disorders remain a hot topic among scholars, and this work should be a welcome addition to college and university libraries supporting work at the upper-division undergraduate level and above and to professional collections. L. S. Beall; Auburn University

Table of Contents

Starving for Salvation
Prefacep. v
Acknowledgmentsp. vii
Introdutionp. 3
1 Contemporary Approaches, Historical Perspectives, New Directionsp. 15
2 Popular Icons of Womanhood and the Salvation Myth of Female Slendernessp. 39
3 Popular Rituals of Womanhood and the Saving Promises of Culture Litep. 67
4 The Struggles of Anorexic and Bulimic Girls and Womenp. 95
5 Cultivating Alternative Senses, Practices, and Visionsp. 125
Notesp. 149
Select Bibliographyp. 191
Indexp. 201